1934 – 2013
Nancy Griffith, 1934 — 2013
Nancy Griffith, CCA Blue Water Medal winner in 1972 with her husband Bob and son Reid, passed away in New York on September 23. She was 79. Nancy circumnavigated the globe three times with her husband and son and was called the “Amelia Earhart of the ocean.”
Nancy lived in Inverness, California on and off in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, between sailing expeditions with her husband, Robert Griffith, who worked as a veterinarian in Point Reyes Station in the 1950’s. She spent most of her adult life in Hawaii, when not on the open sea.
Nancy first sailed as a college student in Hawaii, when a colleague took a few girls out in the water and she was offered the chance to helm the dinghy. “It was freedom and it was free and it was in harmony with all of nature. The wind is blowing and you’re capturing the wind and you’re going deliberately to where you point the boat to; it was just magic,” she said in a video shot at a family reunion last year.
She met her husband and sailing partner in 1960, after he retired from his veterinary practice. He and his then-teenage daughter, Melouise Griffith, had sailed from West Marin to the Marquesas Islands and on to Hawaii. Nancy watched in awe as the 52-foot boat tacked expertly into harbor. “Nancy said she fell in love with the boat, and then our father.” They married in 1961.
Nancy survived two shipwrecks: one in the Red Sea in late 1962 after the Awahanee ran into a coral reef, and another in early 1963, when the Griffiths spent 67 days on Vahanga Island, a speck of uninhabited land in the Tuamotus after hitting a reef during a storm. Finally they got word to French authorities and were rescued. The rescue was typically Gallic. A gendarme waded ashore, decked out in his finest uniform, and was met by Dr. Griffith in tattered clothes and beard. The gendarme extended his hand.
"Dr. Griffith, I presume?"
Later Bob built a ferro cement yacht Awahanee II in New Zealand based on the lines of Awahanee I. Nancy also survived a near fatal woman overboard experience in the Indian Ocean.
The couple published a book in 1979, Blue Water: A Guide to Self-Reliant Sailboat Cruising, and a 1975 documentary, Spirit of Nuka Hiva, was made about the Polynesian voyaging canoe they built and sailed to the Marquesas.
In 1979 after Robert passed away, Nancy ran a heavy-weather sailing school in the early 1980’s. “She taught sailing on one of the most treacherous pieces of water on the planet,” said her son Teno. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s Nancy ran cargo sailing ships in the South Pacific. “She did all kinds of crazy stuff on that boat,” Teno said of the Edna, the 135-foot freighter Nancy sailed for several years. She transported staples such as rice, flour and sugar, along with a various other cargo. Teno recalled one memorable trip when she transported a Cadillac to Samoa. “The crew had a couple of days of fun with it,” he said.
In the early 90’s Nancy acquired a new vessel, the 177-foot Avatapu, a Japanese fixer upper that a crew renovated. Teno put his studies on hold at the University of Hawaii to assist. Nancy decided to start transporting cargo on the Avatapu in the Cook Islands, since many of the outlying islands had for some time lacked frequent supplies. However, just as she got started, two locally owned ships also started up; one soon folded, but the other provided stiff competition—especially since, as her son noted, she already had two strikes against her: she was both a foreigner and a woman. She succeeded, Teno said, because she ran an above-board business that didn’t swindle her customers. Nancy retired from the cargo business in 2000 and started a coffee farm, Aama Farm, in Kona, a district on Hawaii’s biggest island.
Nancy’s son Reid, started sailing at age 5 and was on a number of their seafaring voyages—including three global circumnavigations. Tragically, Reid died in a climbing accident in the Marquesas at the age of 21. Nancy’s husband Bob Griffith died in 1979. As was one of the surviving Blue Water Medal winners, Nancy was honored in 1997 at CCA’s 75th anniversary party in Annapolis.
During the two decades they sailed together, Nancy and Robert went on 13 long voyages, often transporting goods and scientists along the way. They were awarded the Blue Water Medal for undertaking the first Antarctic circumnavigation by sailboat, being the first small vessel to sail east to west around the world south of all continents, and sailing over 170,000 miles. At the awards dinner the late John Parkinson, Jr. commented, “In all my years of serving on this (Awards) Committee, in my opinion we have never had a recipient so deserving of this honor.”
John E. Sanford